A BRUHAT ISSUE – IV: The Karnataka HC has asked the state government to hold elections to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) within six months. This directive comes in the backdrop of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s ambitious plan to split the existing BBMP into three smaller municipal corporations. We dissect the entire issue at hand in this five-part series. Read previous copy- Bruhat Bengaluru: BBMP needs a watchdog that can bite. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) always gets it left, right and centre when it comes to governance. And, if good governance were to be about participatory democracy, the BBMP would be reckoned to be an abject failure. For over 20 years, various ruling dispensations in the state had virtually ignored the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992, which devolves power to basic units of governance in cities and towns called ward committees. The result was a lack of transparency in civic administration, and huge losses that accrued to the state exchequer on account of corruption. The issue of ward committees, the ground-level unit of urban governance, has been surfacing in the public discourse in Bengaluru since the city three years ago literally sank under the very garbage that it generated daily. One of the solutions offered at the time was the setting up of ward committees – a constitutional obligation. After all, you needed democracy to work at the grassroots level to solve fundamental issues. But the BBMP remained callous to the idea and kept hedging, till it was hauled up by the Karnataka High Court. The High Court in January 2013 directed the BBMP to constitute a 10-member ward committee headed by corporators in all 198 wards under the corporation within three days. The order of the division bench came in response to a number of public interest petitions (PILs) filed on the garbage mess in the city. Karnataka already had the requisite provisions in its own laws, but had failed to abide by them. After the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) made it a mandatory for community participation in municipal corporations having a population of three lakh or more in order to receive funds, the state government brought in a new law to comply with JNNURM compulsions – the Karnataka Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Act, 2011, better known as the Community Participation Law, which was enacted in January 2011. According to Section 13(H) of this Act, the city corporations themselves, and not the state government, were required to set up ward committees. There should be a ward committee in each ward of every city corporation, with the corporator representing the ward being the chairperson of the panel. Ten other members would be nominated by the corporation, of whom at least two members should belong to the SC/ST categories. Besides, there should be least three female members, two members from resident welfare associations (RWAs) of the ward, and an officer designated by the corporation commissioner. There was a rider: the Act gave corporators the “veto power” in choosing members of the committee. Nevertheless, ward committees are a mechanism built into the system so as to ensure compliance, and act as a watchdog. These committees are empowered to ensure timely collection of taxes, water supply maintenance, sewerage system, solid waste management, street lighting, ensure maintenance of parks, open spaces, greening of area in the ward amongst other things. There can’t be a better mechanism to ensure way to ensure transparency in a democracy than a constitutionally-mandated role of the citizen as the watchdog. The BBMP, meanwhile, grudgingly complied with the January 2013 court order. Members to the ward committees were appointed, but those could not work immediately since rules to make them functional were not framed. The Karnataka Municipal Corporations Draft Rules (Ward Committee) were finalised only in March 2014. It’s been just about a year, and things were just about beginning to fall in place when the state government, in its hurry to trifurcate the BBMP, dissolved the corporation. The state government is yet to receive the final report of the three-member expert committee that was set up in September 2014 to look into the possible restructuring of the BBMP. Among the suggestions made by a number of institutions to this expert committee, two have laid considerable emphasis on the crucial role that ward committees have to play in urban governance—the Azim Premji University (APU) and CIVIC Bangalore (Citizens Voluntary Initiative for the City). The APU remarked in its submission, “Since the problem with Bengaluru’s governance is in the way power is organised, we reject a restructuring of (the) BBMP based on purely administrative decentralization or a division of (the) BBMP within the current framework in which power is distributed. The underlying issue with a purely administrative decentralisation is the absence of any form of political accountability at the zonal or any other level to which administrative powers are proposed to be decentralised. If the problems faced by the peripheral areas are that of political distance from the centre, administrative restructuring is not likely to suffice.” “The underlying problem with a division of BBMP not accompanied by political devolution or governance realignment is that it will merely result in the replication of problems currently faced by BBMP at a smaller scale. We are however not opposed to a division of BBMP if it also includes the rapid devolution of powers to the wards and the restructuring of governance structures that ensures the executive power of the mayor and the accountability of parastatal organs.” CIVIC had specific suggestions. It argued that the current veto power of the councilor given to councilors on ward committees “should be removed as it makes the concept of people’s participation meaningless.” Any future split of the BBMP cannot afford to disregard the fact that it is not merely an issue of boundaries or population of Bengaluru – it is as much about institutional design and devolution of power, as is mandated by the Constitution of India. Subir Ghosh (www.subirghosh.in) is a Bengaluru-based writer and journalist.